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Wehle's World
by Philippa Wehle


The opening panel of "Scandinavia On Stage"

"Scandinavia On Stage," a meeting between American theater professionals and their counterparts from Nordic nations, took place at the beautiful newly built Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue, April 20 and 21. Over 200 participants from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden and the United States exchanged ideas, discussed differences and similarities and attended readings in English of some 20 Scandinavian plays.

The event marked the first collaboration between the creative forces of these five Scandinavian countries and major American producers, directors and academics, dramatists, critics and playwrights.

As Ed Gallagher, President of Scandinavia House, noted in his opening remarks, "It is not an easy task to lure American Theater professionals to Scandinavia so we came to them," and indeed our Nordic friends not only came to us, they were our gracious hosts during this two-day long voyage of discovery.

From Danish Theater Critic Monna Dithmer's engaging and informative lecture on new Nordic drama to a lively panel discussion on the state of the theater both Nordic and American, between Rob Marx, Vice President, Fan Fox & Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, Ben Cameron, Executive Director, of Theater Communications Group and Staffan Valdemar Holm, head of Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theatre, along with staged readings of a sampling of plays, Day One, which I attended, presented many opportunities to get at least a first sense of what the new wave of Nordic theater is like.

"Is New Nordic Drama on its way out of the drawing room?" "Have Scandinavian playwrights finally escaped from the yoke of Ibsen and Strindberg?" These crucial questions posed by Ms Dithmer were no doubt foremost in our minds as we listened to the playwrights and heard excerpts from their plays. Ms. Dithmer assured us that today's Nordic theater is more open and its dramatic structure is more form-breaking than ever before. In her words,"The dark tone of melancholy that has been hovering over the landscape like a Nordic keynote or spirit of place since Ibsen and Strindberg is now abating."

Day One offered us a chance to experience this first hand with a sampling of nine plays. They were well presented and the American actors seemed well cast in the roles they were chosen to play. The excerpts were varied, ranging from dark drama to light hearted farce and it was especially interesting to hear the playwrights speak of their work. Still, it was not always easy to imagine what the plays we heard read would be like on the stage. Without the musical accompaniment, an integral part of some of the plays; without video or other enhancements, much - of necessity - was left to the imagination. To hear just one two-character scene from "Foxtrot" by Finnish playwright Juha Siltanen, for example, a surreal farce for fifteen actors which takes place in multiple places, seemed almost a disservice to this author. Similarly, the brief scene from "Austria" by Norway's Cecilie Loeveid, quite humorous and interesting in its evocation of a landscape of deep fjords and forbidding mountains where a couple play out a strange reunion, could only whet our appetites for a keener sense of the whole play. In discussions with the audience, problems of translation were inevitably raised. Serving the author in tone, rhythm and cultural references is always a tricky matter, of course. In anticipation of these inherent problems, our Scandinavian hosts made sure that we took home with us a collection of thirty Nordic New Wave plays, in translation, an extraordinary gift which allowed us to read and appreciate the full texts of the excerpts we heard read at the conference.

Of all the plays we heard on Day One, "The Sea" by Icelandic playwright Olafur Haukur Simonarson interested me the most. Rather traditional in form, the play concerns an old fishing magnate, head of a family fishing plant in a small town on the coast of Iceland, whose children have arrived to sell the business, split up the family fortune and force their father to move to Reyakvik. "The Sea" is theater with a sense of purpose. It deals with social, political and economic issues of importance to Icelandic fishermen as well as to the nation as a whole. It asks, in effect, who owns the fish in the sea. Here is a theater that comments on what is important to the people of this country, the controversial issue of ownership of Iceland's greatest national resource. If this sounds like Ibsen, no doubt it does, but what is exciting to me is the fact that an entire nation, 280,000 people, can join in the national debate around this question through the theater. As Mr. Simonarson said: "You can speak to a whole population from the stage." But the question of whether such theater is exportable or is only a local art, as Simonarson suggested, was also raised with this piece. It was clear to me that "The Sea" goes beyond the interests of native Icelanders. It definitely speaks to the concerns of other nations in which families are disintegrated because the younger generation chooses to leave local family businesses and move to the cities.

The afternoon's events included an opportunity to learn more about the Nordic theater of our choice, in individual gatherings according to country. Because of my interest in "The Sea," I chose to attend the afternoon seminar on Iceland. There, it again became clear that even though there was no professional theater in Iceland until 1950, Icelanders take a great interest in their theater and indeed have a great influence on their theater. Havar Sigurjonsson, our host, assured us that it is possible to reach the whole nation from the stage, for even if people do not attend the theater, the discussion in Iceland is so open, one cannot avoid knowing about what's playing and talking about it. Word of mouth plays a powerful role in Iceland, it seems. This ability of theater to take on a moral function, to take on the political and economic currents of the time and make a difference to a nation, this was indeed a happy discovery for an American, a member of a country which is anything but indivisible and homogeneous, whose multifaceted theater can reach only pockets of people at a time. A country where life and art can be so fully integrated: this, I found, was exciting and enviable.

No doubt the American theater professionals attending the Conference were also envious to learn that the playwrights we heard from on Day One all seemed to have little trouble making a living in their individual countries. They combine translation with radio theater and Television work, along with theater productions of their plays. There was no talk of the struggles of our artists to make a living through the theater.

Of course one cannot capture the full nature of this unprecedented explosion of new Scandinavian theater in one or even two days, but the participants in "Scandinavia on Stage" could not help but marvel at the vitality of New Nordic Theater, a "well-kept secret" until now. [Wehle]

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